Hugh Latimer

Debonair light comedy actor


Hugh Alexander Forbes Latimer, actor and silversmith: born Haslemere, Surrey 12 May 1913; married 1940 Sheila Murray Gairns (two daughters); died London 12 June 2006.

With his tall, slim build, polished technique and a matinée-idol charm, Hugh Latimer personified the old-style light comedy actor. He thrived in the era before John Osborne's Jimmy Porter had erupted onto the stage in Look Back in Anger in 1956 to change forever the face of British theatre.

In those far-off, innocent days, when many a play would begin with a pert maid answering the telephone and a vista of painted, sunlit lawn lay beyond the French windows, the debonair Latimer was in his natural habitat. Later in his career, he was to take over the leading roles in two famous Shaftesbury Avenue hits, in 1967 following Kenneth More in the romantic comedy The Secretary Bird and in 1968 succeeding Rex Harrison in The Lionel Touch.

Thirty years earlier he had made his first West End appearance as Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice at the St James's Theatre. The year before, in 1936, he had made his very first stage appearance at the Brixton Theatre in the steamy, tropical melodrama White Cargo.

A master of the throwaway line, Latimer repudiated the idea that he was throwing anything away, claiming that an actor needed to have worked hard developing the skill to drive a point home with a feather-light touch. Deeply committed to his craft, he was also diligent in pursuit of the opportunities it offered, particularly in try-outs when promising new plays could be tested in the provinces. He appeared in over 30 plays which were first tried out in this way, several of which transferred to the West End.

He achieved a considerable success in Jane Steps Out (1947) at the Embassy Theatre, A Lady Mislaid (1950) at the St Martin's Theatre, in which he played a gentlemanly policeman, and in Birthday Honours (1953) at the Criterion Theatre, when he appeared as a suave Harley Street physician.

The year before, in Albert, RN, another try-out successfully transferred to the Saville Theatre, he claimed to have been given the smallest part ever written but even with only five minutes on the stage as Schoolie Brown, he managed to steal most of the notices.

In 1956 he appeared with Denis Price in the romantic comedy To My Love at the Fortune Theatre and in 1959 he played opposite Rachel Roberts in a comedy thriller, A Clean Kill, at the Criterion Theatre under the direction of Alistair Sim.

Alongside his busy stage career he performed frequently on radio, playing Bob Dale in Mrs Dale's Diary. On television he appeared in a number of popular 1950s drama series including Dixon of Dock Green, Robin Hood, Warship and Hunter's Walk. After making his film début in 1946 in Corridor of Mirrors, he took the title role in The Adventures of PC49 (1949) and also appeared in Stranger at the Door (1951), The Last Man to Hang (1956) and The Gentle Trap (1960).

A direct descendant of Bishop Hugh Latimer, burnt at the stake for heresy in 1555, Hugh Alexander Forbes Latimer, the eldest of three children, was the son of a colonial teak merchant who exported timber from Burma and India, where Hugh spent the early years of his boyhood. After his mother's second marriage, he was sent to Oundle School where he developed a remarkable proficiency for carpentry and metal-work, an aptitude which was to stand him in good stead in later life.

On going up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he studied Architecture and English, he became an enthusiastic member of the Footlights Club and there discovered that he had a natural talent for making people laugh. After leaving Cambridge in 1935, he briefly attended the Central School of Dramatic Art in London, but when told that he would never make an actor Hugh Latimer promptly quit and almost immediately landed a job with the Nottingham Repertory Theatre, winning a year later his first London stage role in White Cargo.

In 1940 Latimer was acting as compere of an early wartime revue at the Criterion Theatre, Come Out of Your Shell, but by the end of the year he had left the theatre to join the Royal Artillery and was commissioned in the 34th AA Regiment. After being posted as captain for a tour of duty in the Middle East, he was diverted to Ceylon where he was put in charge of troops' welfare.

Later, sent to Bombay to help organise entertainment for the forces, he reported to another old actor friend, Major Jack Hawkins, who apologised for being in bed on Latimer's arrival. Together they put on a production of Terence Rattigan's comedy of service life in wartime London, While the Sun Shines, with a cast of actors recruited from the British and American forces. It was playing in Calcutta as the war ended.

Returning to London, Latimer discovered that his actress wife Sheila had acquired a pretty Regency cottage overlooking Hampstead Heath. Soon he had returned to the stage and to the kind of role which had earned him his pre-war reputation.

One somewhat exotic venture at this time was his role as Lord Phillpot in The Gainsborough Girls, Cecil Beaton's one and only venture as a dramatist. Unfortunately, the dazzling glamour of the first-night audience at the Royal in Brighton in July 1951 rather eclipsed the more subdued traffic on the stage.

By the early Seventies, Latimer had decided he wanted to allow himself more freedom and the obsession for making things which had begun in his public school workshop had now taken hold again. After a short refresher course at the Sir John Cass College (now incorporated into London Metropolitan University), Latimer turned his hand to the creation of splendid objects in precious metals.

He had always constructed elaborate and ingenious toys for his two daughters, Carole and Clare, such as a radio-controlled plastic decoy duck which played havoc among the real ducks on Hampstead Heath and a working model of a windmill driven by a clockwork mouse. But now in his workshop he began working with great skill in silver and gold and quickly found a ready market for his finely wrought silver goblets, exotic jewellery and decorative tableware. A Japanese bank placed an order for 100 tall-stemmed silver wine goblets. Another special commission was for a silver butter dish in the shape of a buttercup for the late Lord Lichfield.

With his easy affability and nonchalant manner Latimer was a popular figure among his theatrical colleagues and he retained his youthful vivacity long into old age.

Derek Granger

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